How do a bunch of wonky generated tones translate to memorable sounds?
October 25, 2015 7:54 PM   Subscribe

A Beginner's Guide to the Synth is a nice long write-up to the history of the synthesizers, from their origins up to the present, with embedded sound samples. For a deeper dive into the history of the hardware, learn the secrets of the synths from Sound on Sound.
posted by filthy light thief (13 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
This is a really fun overview of the synth. I've had loads of fun teaching my eight year old about synths with our new Korg Little Bits Synth Kit, which is a kit of a dozen or so components that snap together with magnets and are just about the best educational tool I can imagine. It's one thing to know what an oscillator hidden somewhere in a plastic chassis does; it's another to hold one in your hand. You can't quite put together a rig as monstrous as Keith Emerson's, but you'll start to get an idea about how that thing works.
posted by vverse23 at 8:59 PM on October 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

This is a good companion to the podcast episode I listened to today of Handelminutes where Scott talked to one of the most well-known composers of Commodore 64 game music. I never appreciated how much better the C=64's sound hardware was than the Apple II line or the NES until listening to this. Episode is here.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:36 PM on October 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Not to be down on the whole thing but note there's some wonky stuff about the history here - Bob Moog didn't exactly invent or claim to invent making music with electronics.
posted by atoxyl at 11:38 PM on October 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I love articles like this. I had years of experience screwing around with and even producing tracks that got released in DAWs, using entirely software stuff and FM/digital synth modules and such... but one day after an idle craigslist search i scored one of these for dirt cheap in meh condition.

The instant i got home from schlepping it on the bus, i slapped it across the arms of my huge morris chair, and just grabbed a stool and jammed out for hours. It started out as a "hmm lets test all the functions/buttons and see what patches are on here" and turned into "oh wait that does WHAT??!". I had an analog board in highschool, but it was a sad korg poly800 with the most opaque and frustrating interface that was really hard to do anything fun with.

It's one thing to get this stuff and have a general understanding of what each thing does, and a completely different one to actually crank knobs and sliders around rather than clicking and dragging icons on a display. I've gotten other synths since, but the "knob for every possible parameter" interface is just so fun.

Friends were showing up, and my roommates were getting home from work... and ended up just sitting down and playing around with it for more hours with me instead of actually getting anything done. We were just about blowing out my monitors with flatulent basslines.

What this article doesn't cover at all is tuning drift. You fire it up and it's completely out of tune. Hit "tune", and it's tuned for a minute... until its warmed up. If you time this right, each voice will be slightly out of tune with the other ones. Now you hit unison mode and you're playing all six at once. But they're detuned, so it sounds like... the end part of the THX sound with a bit more purpose.

This is the fattest sound in the universe. Any connected speaker system will need to be turned down. It's like the death star turbolaser: They all meet in the middle, and then the planet blows up.

Only one of the four monitors i owned when i lived in that apartment works anymore, and that thing is part of the reason why.
posted by emptythought at 3:04 AM on October 26, 2015 [8 favorites]

"Not to be down on the whole thing but note there's some wonky stuff about the history here"

I'll just leave this here then…

120 Years of Electronic Music: The history of electronic music from 1800 to 2015

(I've a bit of a fascination with early tone wheel organs & optical/tape synths. Been meaning to craft a post but never got any futher than putting that link aside, so this is as good a place as any.)
posted by Pinback at 4:32 AM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Not to be down on the whole thing but note there's some wonky stuff about the history here - Bob Moog didn't exactly invent or claim to invent making music with electronics.

Quite true, but to Meg Neal's credit, the first article in the OP includes a lot of links to source material, though it does paint some of the history of synths with a rather broad brush.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:02 AM on October 26, 2015

A nitpick: the ADSR envelope isn't as the author describes; specifically, the Sustain part is not how *long* it sustains for, but the volume at which it sustains.

Other than that, still a fun article.
posted by vernondalhart at 7:27 AM on October 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yay synthesizers! I'm no musician but as an electronics geek they were irresistable. While bombing out of university I consoled myself by building a PAiA Gnome kit. They show up on ebay for multiples of what I originally paid; plans are still available.

Here's a neat twist - Patchblocks - a programmable microsynth that uses a microcontroller as a user-configurable digital signal processor (DSP) to create and combine individual virtual oscilators, filters, delays, etc. I got one during its Kickstarter phase. Note that the programming and emulation software is freely downloadable and is a nice platform for learning about the individual synth blocks.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:52 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I took a course in electronic music at the Cleveland Institute of Music in the early 80s. We weren't allowed to use the cool new Synclavier (or whatever it was that was too cool for us to be allowed near it), so we had to be satisfied with the crappy old Moog that filled the wall in the studio next door. These days do they just give everybody an OP-1?
posted by lagomorphius at 10:19 AM on October 26, 2015

This is pretty cool. If you've never watched these videos, they're a great intro to synthesis (from the 80's):

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Thank Dean Friedman for these fantastic educational artifacts.
posted by defenestration at 11:04 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I Dream of Wires is available on Netflix, and is in general a good introduction to modular synthesis, which is the real rabbit hole. If you are interested in going further, MuffWiggler is where it's at. I haven't made the jump, but I am eyeing the new Reaktor 6 Blocks with interest.
posted by bouvin at 11:41 AM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've just been getting into synths recently. Mostly I'm retroactively disappointed that teenaged me got some crap acoustic guitar that I never got very far with, instead of a synth. My life would have been very different.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 9:56 PM on October 26, 2015

This thread is incomplete without a link to Marc Doty's synth demo video YouTube channel. It's one thing to read sixty-three articles about how modern audio synthesis works. It's another thing entirely to hear those principles in practical action.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:18 PM on October 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

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